The Big Island has so much to offer that it feels impossible to take everything in over the course of one visit. Perhaps that’s why vacationers return time and time again. In addition to its delicious food, tropical beverages, and iconic culture, a huge part of what makes Hawaii so tantalizing is its one-of-a-kind natural beauty. From ancient volcanoes to pristine beaches to otherworldly waterfalls, there’s no shortage of natural wonders to visit and enjoy. Here, we break down 10 of our very favorite must-see parks, beaches, valleys, and recreational areas across the Big Island.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
This massive park located about 45 miles southwest of Hilo is home to not one, but two volcanoes. Reaching heights of over 13,000 feet above sea level, the park is home to two of the most active volcanoes in the world – Kilauea, which last erupted in 2018, and Mauna Loa, which last erupted in 1984.
Volcano National Park stretches out over 523 square miles and offers over 150 miles of hiking trails. In addition to the volcanoes, visitors can stop in the visitor center, and visit craters, volcanic deserts, rainforests, and more.
When most of us picture a beach, we envision smooth white sand stretching to the sea. However, at Punaluu Beach, things look a little different. In fact, due to the local volcanic activity, the sand here is a stunning, smooth jet black. A grove of coconut palm trees contributes to the tropical feel of this oasis, and kids (and adults) may enjoy watching the large Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles that call this area home.
While this southern East Coast beach’s picnic tables and public restrooms make it a perfect spot to have a picnic, enjoy the sun, or take some photos, we should note that it isn’t a good location for swimming. Even so, we highly recommend a visit!
Akaka Falls State Park
Located in Honomu, on Hawaii’s East Coast, Akaka Falls State Park is home to two impressive waterfalls, Kahuna Falls, which is about 100 feet tall, and Akaka Falls, which stands at a towering 442 feet.
This is perhaps a good introduction to hiking in Hawaii for first-time hikers and amateur outdoor explorers. The easy-to-follow path is less than half a mile long and clearly marked. It winds through an immersive setting of dense rainforest full of signature local foliage like bamboo, wild orchids, and more. Open most days, this is a lovely spot to spend a relaxing morning or afternoon.
Located in Hawaii Volcanoes State Park, Kilauea Volcano is one of the most iconic – and active – volcanoes in the world. Kilauea means “much spreading” in Hawaiian, and upon visiting, it’s easy to see why; it stretches to cover more than 4 square miles!
While this is an amazing natural wonder that is always on our must-see list, it is also very active. Eruptions here don’t usually look like what we see in the movies – hot lava shooting straight up into the sky and raining down onto everything below it. Instead, Kilauea’s eruptions are usually non-explosive, and happen at ground level, in a lake of boiling lava. Due to this, some trails and areas surrounding the volcano may be closed from time to time, so it’s worth checking with the National Park Service before visiting. But not to fear, even if you aren’t able to get close to this towering mountain, you’ll be able to wonder at and admire it from afar.
Nestled on the Big Island’s East Coast, near the northern tip, Waipio Valley is a stunning, lush, largely uninhabited valley untouched by modern times. The gorgeous green valley is dense with local plants and trees and is home to several taro fields. While there are some hiking trails leading down into the valley, they are advanced trails that cover difficult terrain and are not recommended for recreational hikers.
Instead, visit Waipio Valley Lookout, an elevated spot offering sweeping views of the valley and the sea cliffs surrounding it. The lookout, complete with a designated picnic area and public bathrooms is a beautiful place to take photos, or simply take in the surroundings. It should be noted, though, that the access road leading to the area was closed indefinitely as of February 2022, due to fears of landslides and rockfalls. This means that, at least for the time being, visitors can not access the valley or the lookout area.
Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area
If you are looking for a beach that truly has it all, this is a must-see destination. Located on the West Coast, this sprawling beach is a wildly popular destination for visitors of all kinds. Its expansive white beaches are a beautiful place to lounge, play, or catch some rays. The water, when calm, is ideal for swimming, and depending on the conditions, is also a great space to surf. Picnic areas come fully equipped with tables grills, and public facilities make it easy to spend the day without having to leave for bathroom breaks.
For those celebrating with a large group, there are covered pavilions dotting the area. Perhaps best of all? Hapuna Beach is a very popular camping destination. In fact, there are several A-frame camping structures that can be rented for a small daily fee. In the camping area, there are also community buildings complete with refrigerators and showers. In short, if you want it, this recreation area probably has it.
Puuhonua O Hanaunau National Historic Park
Once a safe haven and refuge for those on the run from the law, this historic park remains an impressive and sacred landmark. Located on the West Coast, the area is surrounded on two sides by a giant wall, the Pa Puuhonua, which translates to “Great Wall.” The wall is 12 feet tall, and a solid 18 inches thick.
Consisting of about 180-acres, this area was once considered royal grounds. Today, visitors can wander the grounds, take a self-guided tour, and admire a sacred temple that houses the remains of past Hawaiian chiefs. Bordering the ocean, the park offers beautiful water views, and is the perfect spot to watch incredible, unobstructed sunsets.
Located conveniently inside Wailuku River State Park, this iconic waterfall is easy to access from adjacent Hilo. The 80-foot-tall falls are situated in a way that causes – you guessed it – rainbows to appear often near the water. The best time to potentially catch a glimpse of one is generally in the morning.
There are two spots from which to view the falls. The first is an elevated area looking down over the falls. The second is lower down but may offer clearer views. The area is rounded out by a decent-sized parking lot, a relaxing grassy area, and public restrooms. While not an all-day destination, this is a great spot to visit for 30 minutes to an hour and take in the beautiful scenery and impressive waterfall.
Mauna Kea Beach
Located on the West Coast, near the northern tip of the Big Island, this public beach is situated behind the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. With its sprawling white sands and picturesque palm trees, this is the idyllic sort of beach that comes to mind when people daydream about escaping to a tropical Hawaiian vacation.
In the summer, relatively calm waters make this a great place for swimming and snorkeling. In the winter, strong currents and choppy waves can make water activities dangerous, but it’s nonetheless a wonderful place to set up on the sand and spend the day. The nearby hotel offers amenities to the public such as rentals of boogie boards, snorkel equipment, and other beach gear. Additionally, it’s a great spot to grab lunch or a refreshing tropical cocktail.
Nahuku (Thurston Lava Tube)
There are lots of places where you can see history, but here, you can literally walk through it. Situated deep in the rainforest in Volcanoes National Park, this cave is actually a 500-year-old tube formed from the lava of a nearby volcanic eruption.
Today, visitors can hike to the tube, which is lit from 8:00-8:00 daily. Although it’s open to the public all day, this very popular tourist attraction gets crowded, and the parking lot offers extremely limited parking. For this reason, it’s recommended to visit early in the morning, if possible. For those looking to make a day of it, the Lava Tube connects up with Devastation Trail, a moderately difficult hiking path that winds through the park.
Whether you’re looking for a relaxing day lounging on the beach or a challenging hike through rainforests and around volcanoes, the Big Island promises a plethora of outdoor activities and natural wonders for you to appreciate. We hope you enjoy exploring this outdoor oasis as much as we did!